Parents honor their late daughter by helping those who helped her

By JILL INGRAM MA ’08

Snapshots from the final eight years of Katherine Arbaugh’s life mark everyday moments. In one, she relaxes in the arms of her mother in the family’s swimming pool. Another shows her riding horseback, and another dressed as a cat for Halloween. There was an outing to the state fair, a day of fishing on the lake, a trip to San Diego, a cruise to Mexico. One image shows Katherine in a cap and gown, cradling her high school diploma.

Katherine shortly before her accident.

What’s striking about these images is that Katherine was able to participate at all in such events. In July 1998, the summer after her eighth-grade year of school, Katherine, parents Mary Brand Arbaugh ’79 and Larry Arbaugh ’79, younger sister Caroline, and two family friends were in a line of stopped cars on a mountain highway outside Phoenix when a truck carrying a boom and roofing supplies lost its brakes and crashed into 11 vehicles, including theirs. A newspaper account of the accident likened the scene to a bomb site, with asphalt, nails and other materials littering the highway, vehicles crushed and atop one another, and wreckage strewn a distance the length of a football field. The runaway truck’s first point of contact was the rear passenger-side seat of the Arbaughs’ minivan, where Katherine was sitting. Larry Arbaugh climbed through the driver’s side window and checked the other passengers. Seeing Katherine, her massive head trauma obvious, he feared his daughter was dead. While the truck’s driver and another motorist did die that day, Katherine survived, but the accident left the once bright, athletic, outgoing 14-year-old a nonverbal quadriplegic.

After the accident, Katherine spent 12 weeks in a coma and six months in an acute care rehabilitation facility. During this time, and in the years Katherine spent being cared for at the family’s home in Tempe, Ariz. – the Arbaughs were impressed by the dedication of the health care professionals who worked with their daughter. “This whole community of people who give this kind of attention and care all day long was something that we were not aware of, and to see it firsthand, we have a great appreciation for what they do,” Mary Arbaugh said. Agreed her husband, “It takes a special person to get into those fields.”

As the Arbaughs moved closer to taking Katherine home, they were understandably overwhelmed with the long-term implications of her care. “With parents of a very injured child, you don’t think you can take that child home,” Mary Arbaugh said. “You think, ‘I can’t take this kid home and take care of her. I can’t clean her tracheotomy out. I can’t toilet her. I can’t feed her. I can’t do this.’” Katherine’s therapists reassured the worried parents. “The therapists are there to say, ‘Yes, you can. We’re going to help you, we’re going to show you, we’re going to figure out something that’s going to work for you,’” Mary Arbaugh said.

Beyond practical matters of Katherine’s care and well-being, the health care professionals who entered the Arbaughs’ lives helped the family adjust to the abrupt change in direction their own lives had taken. “They help you learn to live your life again in a new way,” Mary Arbaugh said. “The therapists taught us that it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s what you can do.” Early on, a therapist in Katherine’s rehabilitation facility compared the turn of events to planning and preparing for a trip to Italy, only to disembark in Greenland. “You need to learn to have a good time in Greenland,” the therapist said.

Over time, the Arbaughs learned not only to provide much of Katherine’s physical care (including deft navigation of insurance roadblocks), but they learned to appreciate her accomplishments. After months with a feeding tube and with the help of speech therapists, Katherine learned to swallow again. Therapists introduced the Arbaughs to a special-needs program that allowed Katherine to attend high school. One year, again with months of practice, Katherine celebrated a birthday by blowing out the candles on her cake – quite an achievement for an individual unable to sit or hold her head independently. “There was singing, there was joy, because that was huge for her to take a breath and control it out,” Mary Arbaugh said. “And the therapists rejoice with you over any advancement.”

Top, a young Katherine (second from left) plays with friends in the backyard pool. Below, the pool becomes a therapy setting with Donna Adler.

Donna Adler, an aquatic specialist in the Phoenix area, worked with Katherine in the family’s pool for eight years, where she could help the girl with activities such as increasing range of motion without causing her the pain it would have on dry land. The Arbaughs were different from other families Adler encountered professionally. While Adler witnessed some families torn apart by the stress of accidents and illnesses, the Arbaughs, including Larry’s mother, Betty, and Mary’s sister, Melody Brand Chang ’78, weathered hard times together. “In all the years I’ve worked with people in critical conditions, Katherine was in the best care. Mary was on top of everything. The dedication was incredible,” said Adler, who is not a licensed therapist but is certified in aquatic therapeutic exercise and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. “A lot of people would have put their children in a special home, and absolutely they could have done that with Katherine, and I don’t think she would have survived or thrived like she did.”

Adler and the Arbaughs grew close. Mary Arbaugh joined the water aerobics class Adler led and eventually hosted the class in the backyard pool. Adler brought her own children to therapy sessions at the home, where they would play Nintendo with Caroline Arbaugh. The two women recently made a point of visiting over the New Year holiday. Just as the Arbaughs were grateful for the health care professionals in their lives, Adler was grateful for them. Their experience with the Arbaughs influenced her own children, now in their early 20s, Adler said. Her son has been accepted to medical school and plans to study pediatric neurology, and her daughter has chosen to pursue a career in social work. “It was not just the Arbaugh family who was affected by Katherine’s accident. They affected a lot of people around them,” Adler said. “Working with Katherine was one of the most joyous things I’ve ever done in my whole career. She’s certainly someone I will never forget.”

Around the summer of 2006, Katherine’s health began a rapid decline. She suffered frequent seizures and multiple bouts with pneumonia, and in January 2007, she died in hospice, surrounded by her family. With Caroline earning her undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University, the Arbaughs planned a return to their home state of North Carolina. Mary Arbaugh’s mother and two sisters still live in the state, and Larry Arbaugh grew up around Cullowhee, where his father, the late Lawrence Glenn Arbaugh Sr., was a longtime professor of accounting and information in the Western Carolina University School of Business. In 2010, the Arbaughs moved to a home they had built in Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County. Larry’s mother continues to live with them; Caroline is a first-year law student at the University of Georgia. Larry, who spent 22 years with Motorola Inc., retiring as operations manager for the digital imaging group, now works as WCU’s associate athletic director for business development and media relations.

After Katherine’s death, her parents remembered her with a garden and fountain at their Mesa, Ariz., church, but they wanted to do more. The Arbaughs, who met while students at WCU, have been regular supporters of the university since 1979, with gifts to the Loyalty Fund, Catamount Club, the fine and performing arts and other university initiatives. In early 2011, the couple began working with WCU’s Office of Development to establish the Katherine M. Arbaugh Endowed Scholarship Fund, which provides immediate support to graduate students in three programs of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences while also building an endowment over time to ensure the fund’s perpetuity.

With the scholarship fund, the Arbaughs intentionally remembered not only Katherine but also the professionals who helped provide her the best possible quality of life and challenged her to achieve her maximum potential. “You only see doctors very briefly,” Larry Arbaugh said. “It’s the therapists who stay with you for hours, for weeks, for months, for years. They’re a support network for the family as well.”

Gift helps strengthen programs by attracting top-notch students

The first students to benefit from the Katherine M. Arbaugh Endowed Scholarship Fund were Blake Queen in the Department of Physical Therapy, Micah Wilson ’11 in the School of Nursing and Holly Lamb in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Each of these students receives $1,000 per semester beginning in fall 2011.

For Wilson (above, in his role as resource coordinator at Catawba Valley Medical Center), whose wife stays home to care for the couple’s two young sons, the scholarship was an unexpected blessing. Wilson, 34, is in his first year of WCU’s family nurse practitioner program and eventually would like to go into primary care and also apply his skills to mission work overseas. With a background in critical care, he understands the importance of communication with a patient’s family. “One of my favorite things about the job is to be there with the family, support them, educate them, tell them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” he said.

WCU’s Department of Physical Therapy launched its doctoral-level degree (WCU’s second, after educational leadership) in fall 2011 with an inaugural cohort of 32 students; more than 500 students have applied for admission this year. The Arbaugh scholarship strengthens the program by attracting top-notch students, said Karen Lunnen, program head. “It helps get the best students here. I think this really made the difference for Blake being able to come here,” Lunnen said. The importance of working with the entire family is “absolutely huge” and is something that students learn as they progress through the curriculum, she said. “You have to involve the whole family, and often the families need support as much or more than the patients do. Whatever happens to the patient influences the family,” she said. In addition to the science of physical therapy, she said, “there’s an art to forming relationships with family and patient that is critical.”